Disaster Recovery

After the Fire

The Fort McMurray community is now focused on recovery, but it will be a long-term effort.
By: | October 1, 2016 • 7 min read

The raging wildfire that roared through Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada, in May and June was so fierce it burned the entire country’s economy.

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As a result of the fire, Canada’s GDP experienced its worst dip since the depths of the Great Recession. Losses from the blaze resulted in a 1.1 percent economic contraction in the second quarter.  The Bank of Canada cut the country’s economic outlook for the year due to the catastrophe that stopped production at oil sands facilities, forced the evacuation of about 94,000 people and destroyed 2,400 buildings.

The most recent estimate by Property Claim Services puts the insured losses at about $3.6 billion — but while more than 5,000 commercial insurance claims (about $1 billion) are included in that estimate, the hard-hit oil sands producers report few insured losses.

VIDEO: The wildfire had a devastating impact on businesses in the area.

At the peak of the fire, 10 oil and gas producers were temporarily shut down, while work at another one was reduced, said Paul Cutbush, senior vice president, catastrophe management, Aon Benfield Canada.

Even though 1.2 million barrels a day, or about $65 million daily, was lost during that month-long shutdown while the fire was nearby, “no one is talking about any oil and gas claims,” Cutbush said.

That position was made official by Suncor, one of the largest operators that was shut down due to the evacuation, and saw its production reduced by about 20 million barrels because of it.

“The company incurred $50 million of after-tax incremental costs related to evacuation and restart activities,” according to the company’s Q2 earnings report, “which was more than offset by operating cost reductions of $180 million after-tax while operations were shut in.”

It’s not just the lack of damage, said Cutbush. BI policies typically have a waiting period before policies are triggered. That period typically is 60 to 90 days, but since the marketplace is very competitive, he said, it’s possible that some of the oil and gas producers had a 30-day waiting period.

Even so, the evacuation orders issued May 3 that shut production around Fort McMurray — the hub of Canada’s oil sands extraction and processing facilities — only lasted three to four weeks, depending on their location, he said.

“A lot of companies went back online 30 days after the fire,” Cutbush said. “I think if you see any claims, it will be those [insurance] writers who have more competitively agreed to do 30-day waiting periods. But it’s still too early to tell.

“It’s risk management but it’s net retained non-insured risk management.”

The energy companies’ facilities were protected by the effectiveness of the “fire breaks” built to divert the wildfires, he said.

Emphasis on Safety

“The core of Fort McMurray exists because of the oil sands,” said Bill Adams, vice president, Western and Pacific for the Insurance Bureau of Canada (IBC). “There is a strong focus on safety in those operations, and most of the people in and around Fort McMurray have that in their blood.

Bill Adams, vice president, western and Pacific, Insurance Bureau of Canada

Bill Adams, vice president, Western and Pacific, Insurance Bureau of Canada

“I am not sure any other community in North America could have accomplished the same as that town did.”

From a risk mitigation perspective, Adams said, “this incident really set a new benchmark for what can go wrong when you build a municipality in a boreal forest. We have never seen an event like this that affected so much infrastructure.

“Assessing this fire will definitely give us a new understanding, and many municipalities will have opportunities to avail themselves of the learnings.”

Andrew Bent, manager of enterprise risk management for the Alberta Energy Regulator, also praised the energy companies.

“The operators were fantastic. They knew they were part of the community and they were fast to take in some of the more than 88,000 people who had to be evacuated,” he said.

“As regulator for the industry, we require all operators to have emergency response plans in place.

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“Those plans vary with the nature of the operator from site-specific to more general contingency planning. Even so, we were dealing with an event of unprecedented scale. The fire moved very quickly and behaved very unusually from a risk-management perspective.”

The Alberta Energy Regulator had its own risk to manage as well: Bent said the staff’s families had to be evacuated.

“Once we had that secure, we swung into our role of industry support. We were in day-to-day contact with the operators and coordinating with the provincial command center. We had to understand the local situation for the operators and ask for their specific information.”

From previous smaller forest fires, regulators and operators knew that there was actually little external fire danger to mine lands, if any. Given the wide, if ugly, swathes of cleared land around the processing plants, there was little external fire danger to those either.

Still, regulators gave a general, but not blanket, emergency authorization for operators to build berms around their properties without having to file permits in advance. Actions would be reviewed afterward for environmental and safety compliance.

“The oil sands companies had better fire breaks than the towns themselves,” said Cutbush of Aon Benfield.

In addition to homes and two hotels, the wildfire destroyed three camps used by subcontractors to house oil and gas workers, which should be covered under property policies. Other direct damage from fire and smoke should also be among the covered commercial claims, he said.

Remarkably, no deaths were directly attributable to the fires.

Ethan Bayne, chief of staff for the Provincial Wildfire Recovery Task Force, said the area was “lucky the fire spared major elements of the region’s infrastructure. That includes the major hospital, the water treatment facilities and the airport.”

Ethan Bayne, chief of staff, Provincial Wildfire Recovery Task Force

Ethan Bayne, chief of staff, Provincial Wildfire Recovery Task Force

He credited local officials and industries, notably the oil sands producers, with being responsive and responsible. “The province ran an operations command center for the fire response. In the event, private fire apparatus from industry were deployed.”

In all, about 40,000 claims have been filed from wildfire that began May 1 and was finally declared under control on July 5.

It was the costliest insured wildfire on record in North America, and the costliest insured natural catastrophe in all of Canada, according to PCS, resulting in about double the claims filed after the 2013 floods in Southern Alberta.

Standard & Poors reported that primary insurers “generally have sufficient available reinsurance coverage, adequate capital adequacy, and enough group-level support (for certain subsidiaries) to absorb the losses. However, insurers with a smaller premium base and more concentrated or outsize exposure to Alberta could face some strain and their ratings may come under pressure.”

A number of insurance-linked securities funds were also hit by losses from the wildfire, but it’s unclear as to the extent.

Recovery Efforts

While fires continue to burn — there are forest fires all summer, every summer, in Canada and the U.S. — the focus in and around Fort McMurray has shifted firmly to recovery.

In the near term, the commercial focus is on rebuilding and restoration of the temporary housing needs to get business and industry back to capacity.

The IBC coordinated an effort by 40 or so underwriters handling claims to arrange a single contractor to demolish and clear damaged structures in the area.

The Alberta Energy Regulator recovery team is working with operators on start-up operational plans while monitoring regional air quality to ensure there is no risk to public safety or the environment, according to the agency.

Fewer than 1,000 of the nearly 90,000 people evacuated have returned following the lifting of the provincial state of emergency.

“From previous wildfires we have learned, unfortunately, that recovery is not quick and it is not linear,” said Bayne. “There are unforeseen and unforeseeable complications and delays.”

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Fort McMurray is accustomed to boom and bust cycles, Bayne said, “but what we are facing now is a scale never before seen.”

“At the peak boom time of the oil sands development, the region saw 600 homes completed in a year. But even if we can repeat that, it would take more than three years to rebuild 1,900 homes. The short-term housing need is already being addressed.”

He added that the first milestone in provincial recovery will be a formal recovery plan due to be released in the middle of September. It will include preliminary assessments of the incident, and also a first look at major needs for recovery.

“I cannot emphasize enough our thanks and appreciation of the oil sands industry, the indigenous communities, and the Red Cross,” said Bayne. “Our role has just been to coordinate the work they have done with the regional municipalities.” &

Gregory DL Morris is an independent business journalist based in New York with 25 years’ experience in industry, energy, finance and transportation. He can be reached at [email protected]

More from Risk & Insurance

More from Risk & Insurance

Alternative Energy

A Shift in the Wind

As warranties run out on wind turbines, underwriters gain insight into their long-term costs.
By: | September 12, 2017 • 6 min read

Wind energy is all grown up. It is no longer an alternative, but in some wholesale markets has set the incremental cost of generation.

As the industry has grown, turbine towers have as well. And as the older ones roll out of their warranty periods, there are more claims.

This is a bit of a pinch in a soft market, but it gives underwriters new insight into performance over time — insight not available while manufacturers were repairing or replacing components.

Charles Long, area SVP, renewable energy, Arthur J. Gallagher

“There is a lot of capacity in the wind market,” said Charles Long, area senior vice president for renewable energy at broker Arthur J. Gallagher.

“The segment is still very soft. What we are not seeing is any major change in forms from the major underwriters. They still have 280-page forms. The specialty underwriters have a 48-page form. The larger carriers need to get away from a standard form with multiple endorsements and move to a form designed for wind, or solar, or storage. It is starting to become apparent to the clients that the firms have not kept up with construction or operations,” at renewable energy facilities, he said.

Third-party liability also remains competitive, Long noted.

“The traditional markets are doing liability very well. There are opportunities for us to market to multiple carriers. There is a lot of generation out there, but the bulk of the writing is by a handful of insurers.”

Broadly the market is “still softish,” said Jatin Sharma, head of business development for specialty underwriter G-Cube.

“There has been an increase in some distressed areas, but there has also been some regional firming. Our focus is very much on the technical underwriting. We are also emphasizing standardization, clean contracts. That extends to business interruption, marine transit, and other covers.”

The Blade Problem

“Gear-box maintenance has been a significant issue for a long time, and now with bigger and bigger blades, leading-edge erosion has become a big topic,” said Sharma. “Others include cracking and lightning and even catastrophic blade loss.”

Long, at Gallagher, noted that operationally, gear boxes have been getting significantly better. “Now it is blades that have become a concern,” he said. “Problems include cracking, fraying, splitting.

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“In response, operators are using more sophisticated inspection techniques, including flying drones. Those reduce the amount of climbing necessary, reducing risk to personnel as well.”

Underwriters certainly like that, and it is a huge cost saver to the owners, however, “we are not yet seeing that credited in the underwriting,” said Long.

He added that insurance is playing an important role in the development of renewable energy beyond the traditional property, casualty, and liability coverages.

“Most projects operate at lower capacity than anticipated. But they can purchase coverage for when the wind won’t blow or the sun won’t shine. Weather risk coverage can be done in multiple ways, or there can be an actual put, up to a fixed portion of capacity, plus or minus 20 percent, like a collar; a straight over/under.”

As useful as those financial instruments are, the first priority is to get power into the grid. And for that, Long anticipates “aggressive forward moves around storage. Spikes into the system are not good. Grid storage is not just a way of providing power when the wind is not blowing; it also acts as a shock absorber for times when the wind blows too hard. There are ebbs and flows in wind and solar so we really need that surge capacity.”

Long noted that there are some companies that are storage only.

“That is really what the utilities are seeking. The storage company becomes, in effect, just another generator. It has its own [power purchase agreement] and its own interconnect.”

“Most projects operate at lower capacity than anticipated. But they can purchase coverage for when the wind won’t blow or the sun won’t shine.”  —Charles Long, area senior vice president for renewable energy, Arthur J. Gallagher

Another trend is co-location, with wind and solar, as well as grid-storage or auxiliary generation, on the same site.

“Investors like it because it boosts internal rates of return on the equity side,” said Sharma. “But while it increases revenue, it also increases exposure. … You may have a $400 million wind farm, plus a $150 million solar array on the same substation.”

In the beginning, wind turbines did not generate much power, explained Rob Battenfield, senior vice president and head of downstream at JLT Specialty USA.

“As turbines developed, they got higher and higher, with bigger blades. They became more economically viable. There are still subsidies, and at present those subsidies drive the investment decisions.”

For example, some non-tax paying utilities are not eligible for the tax credits, so they don’t invest in new wind power. But once smaller companies or private investors have made use of the credits, the big utilities are likely to provide a ready secondary market for the builders to recoup their capital.

That structure also affects insurance. More PPAs mandate grid storage for intermittent generators such as wind and solar. State of the art for such storage is lithium-ion batteries, which have been prone to fires if damaged or if they malfunction.

“Grid storage is getting larger,” said Battenfield. “If you have variable generation you need to balance that. Most underwriters insure generation and storage together. Project leaders may need to have that because of non-recourse debt financing. On the other side, insurers may be syndicating the battery risk, but to the insured it is all together.”

“Grid storage is getting larger. If you have variable generation you need to balance that.” — Rob Battenfield, senior vice president, head of downstream, JLT Specialty USA

There has also been a mechanical and maintenance evolution along the way. “The early-generation short turbines were throwing gears all the time,” said Battenfield.

But now, he said, with fewer manufacturers in play, “the blades, gears, nacelles, and generators are much more mechanically sound and much more standardized. Carriers are more willing to write that risk.”

There is also more operational and maintenance data now as warranties roll off. Battenfield suggested that the door started to open on that data three or four years ago, but it won’t stay open forever.

“When the equipment was under warranty, it would just be repaired or replaced by the manufacturer,” he said.

“Now there’s more equipment out of warranty, there are more claims. However, if the big utilities start to aggregate wind farms, claims are likely to drop again. That is because the utilities have large retentions, often about $5 million. Claims and premiums are likely to go down for wind equipment.”

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Repair costs are also dropping, said Battenfield.

“An out-of-warranty blade set replacement can cost $300,000. But if it is repairable by a third party, it could cost as little as $30,000 to have a specialist in fiberglass do it in a few days.”

As that approach becomes more prevalent, business interruption (BI) coverage comes to the fore. Battenfield stressed that it is important for owners to understand their PPA obligations, as well as BI triggers and waiting periods.

“The BI challenge can be bigger than the property loss,” said Battenfield. “It is important that coverage dovetails into the operator’s contractual obligations.” &

Gregory DL Morris is an independent business journalist based in New York with 25 years’ experience in industry, energy, finance and transportation. He can be reached at [email protected]